Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrive to attend a news conference after their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 10. Photo: AFP
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Friday to discuss the Syrian situation.
The Turkish president once again advocated the creation of safe zones in Syria and the continuation of military cooperation with Moscow. He also reiterated his long-held opposition to heavy reliance on the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG)-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) being used to rout the Islamic State (ISIS) from Raqqa.
Erdogan's visit comes at an important juncture. After capturing al-Bab from ISIS last month Ankara sought to fulfill its longstanding vow to move on to Manbij, which is controlled by the SDF's Manbij Military Council. They were swiftly prevented by two separate American and Russian actions. First Russia quickly brokered a deal between the Syrian regime and the SDF which saw the latter surrender villages west of Manbij to the former, then the US directly deployed ground troops in armored vehicles into Manbij itself to prevent Turkish-backed rebels from attacking the SDF. Shortly thereafter the chiefs of staff of the US and Russia met their Turkish counterpart in the Turkish city of Antalya for two days of talks centered around their military cooperation in Syria.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim even signaled on Monday that Ankara has given up on its plan to unilaterally attack Manbij when he stated: “It makes no sense to launch an operation in Manbij without the cooperation of Russia and the United States.”
While both Moscow and Washington have prevented the Turks from advancing from al-Bab to Manbij Turkey still has a significant role to play in the future of Syria, something which both powers more likely than not recognize. It was, after all, thanks to Russian and Turkish agreement that a largely successful ceasefire was implemented in Syria in December. Turkey's agreement to drop its support for various anti-regime groups in Syria was also a significant step for that country to take. Arguably this is the main reason Russia militarily backed Ankara's capture of al-Bab and used its influence over the regime in Damascus to prevent it from hindering that Turkish campaign – something which Damascus attempted to do in November when they threatened to shoot Turkish jets out of the sky.
Now, fresh from their victory in East Aleppo in December the Russians and their Syrian regime ally have turned their guns on the parties excluded from this ceasefire, ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Russian, Syrian and American fighter jets regularly bomb the latter group in Idlib, where various armed groups have turned their guns on each other and the Syrian regime recaptured Palmyra from ISIS – which fell for a second time in December – with Russian backing.
Also, since December Turkey has started recruiting opposition groups defeated in Aleppo to consolidate its control over Syrian territory captured from ISIS. They reportedly plan to use these forces to help combat Fateh al-Sham in Aleppo's northern and western countryside. Fateh al-Sham targets groups in northwestern Syria which are backed by Turkey, such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). A Turkish foreign ministry source also told Reuters in January that Turkey views Fateh al-Sham as a serious threat to its security and is acting against them accordingly.
So, Ankara has given up on its prior aim to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and is actively redirecting armed opposition forces who took up arms to fight Assad to instead combat these militant groups opposed by both the United States and Russia. Meanwhile Russia has focused regime efforts on fighting ISIS in central Syria rather than capitalize on the gains made in Aleppo in order to advance further north to reconquer Idlib – which, at this point in time, would increase the risk that Syrian regime forces would kill Turkish-backed groups and lead to increased tensions between these two sides. Damascus is probably happy to see these groups focus on killing each other and is awaiting a more appropriate time to move against that northwestern province. After all, attacking the various forces it opposes there now could result in them uniting against a common enemy.
After Washington intervened in Manbij the US spokesman for the operation against ISIS – Air Force Col. John Dorrian – tweeted that part of the reason they intervened was to ensure the YPG didn't retain a presence there. If the US does this in a transparent way Turkey's pretext for taking Manbij to remove the YPG will no longer exist and Washington will have upheld a deal it made with Ankara in May 2016, wherein Ankara agreed to permit the SDF/YPG to launch the Manbij offensive by crossing the Euphrates River – a Turkish red-line – provided the YPG retreated once ISIS was removed.
“Of course, the real target now is Raqqa,” Erdogan told Friday's news conference in Moscow. The Turkish president has continuously said that after Manbij the Turkish military would move on to Raqqa to rout ISIS. He even went as far as saying that Turkey aims to create a safe zone there. Other Turkish officials – such as his deputy prime minister – have directly contradicted him on this point, insisting that Turkish objectives in northwest Syria are complete with the removal of ISIS and the continued separation of northeastern Syrian Kurdish territories from the isolated northwestern Afrin Canton.
At this stage it is unlikely that Turkey will participate directly in the Raqqa operation. Given the bad-blood between the YPG and Turkey – just this Friday the Turkish military said it neutralized tens of Kurdish fighters in Syria – Washington might have a hard time convincing the Syrian Kurds to allow Turkish military forces to cross their territory en route to Raqqa. In February 2015 the Kurds did just that when Turkish forces made a brief incursion into Syria to relocate the Tomb of Suleyman Shah.
Instead Erdogan might settle for an agreement over Raqqa's future which will ensure, as with Manbij, that the YPG are denied any foothold there. This, along with a guarantee that Kurdish autonomy in Syria (opposed by most participants in the negotiations) will be restricted, could be sold to the Turkish public as a victory for Ankara.
The aforementioned amendment of Erdogan's policy aims in Syria and cooperation in the largely successful ceasefire – which is essential if any negotiations are to succeed – will likely see the Turkish president's more legitimate concerns in Syria receive a receptive hearing in both Moscow and Washington in the coming weeks and months.